Circle of Friends: Not A Program

by Marsha Forest, Jack Pearpoint and John O'Brien

We get phone calls that have a disturbing consistency.  "Can you send me information on the Circle of Friends Program?  I want my school to set up a Circle of Friends Program for my child."

We think people often confuse the simple but powerful tool - the Circle of Friends Exercise - with the actual building of a circle of friends.  The exercise, developed and used over the years by Marsha Forest, Jack Pearpoint, Judith Snow and John O'Brien, asks people to look deeply and closely at those in their lives, and as a visual aid, to make a chart of who is in your life - in the first, second, third and fourth level of your circles.  We did this originally to demonstrate that for too many people with disabilities, there was only a fourth circle of paid personnel in their lives.  The 'fourth circle' people were not bad people.  It is simply a fact that they are involved with a person's life because of their jobs.

This profound exercise, which can take an hour or a day, opens insights to people about what they want their life to look like.  It gives insights into what and who is missing in your life - what you really want your life to look like.  It is a tool that is a major catalyst for change.  But this tool, which increases clarity, does not build a friendship. It is not a program, it is a tool.

A circle may begin with ideas triggered by using the Circle of Friends tool - and result in simple practical steps - a visit to a neighbour, or a call to a friend.  It really begins by being vulnerable to yourself and others.  It never begins with your child or student, but always with you the adult. Families whose children have the chance of friendship are families where the adults have relationships in their lives.  Numbers don't count.  The importance is quality, loyalty and love.

Yes it would be wonderful for  our school systems to build in the notion of fostering friendships for all children.  But this is much too important to wait for schools to conclude the debate about what school is for.  In fact, the "friendship stuff" is still not high on the agenda...

We have all been taught a delicate and dangerous 'habit' - thinking that there is an "expert", a professional with the answer. There are (and always have been) some people gifted with wisdom, skills, techniques that may help us.  We want to welcome those talents and gifts.  But some issues are not "technical stuff", but about people helping people - people helping each other.  WE have been doing this for centuries.

We are not saying there are NO places where facilitators are hired to assist younger and older students to make friends.  There are a few.  We think it should be a top priority everywhere - now.  But even in the best circumstances, school ends and summer comes. Holidays. Graduation. Kids come and go. Facilitators come and go.  It is too risky to put the fabric of relationships for you and your children into the 'care' of such a fragile structure. Circles and friendships exist in the very fabric of life - not in the fourth period on Thursday.  Families must be the owner/operators of their circles of support. If schools and other support systems can help - great. But prudent families do not give over control of their children's lives lightly.

But what do I do? That is a good place to start.It is time to gather your closest allies and ask, "What do WE do?"  There are churches and neighbourhood groups.  There are self help groups.  There are neighbours and school people.  There are good people  all around you.  Ask them in for coffee.  Feed them and cry with them.  That is the start.

Our suggestion is to sit quietly with the issue.  Think about it with another person. Then ask a third. Then a fourth. Now you are on your way.  Laugh and cry together. There are books and videos to give you ideas.  But the action starts around your kitchen table or in your living room.  There is no one answer. There is no 'program'.

We wish you the best on this quest which indeed is the most important thing you can do for your own life and the lives of your children.

This article was derived from a piece  originally published in Inclusion News 2000, an International Publication from Inclusion Press Toronto Tel:416-658-5363

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